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Fat-Burning Machine: Easy Carb Cycling For A Better Body

Whether your goal is to build muscle, see your abs, or get back in shape, this simple carb cycling plan will help you eat healthy and stay consistent.

Life-As-A-Plate-Best-Grain-Free-Sandwich-Bread-600x400

Yes…or no?

Imagine this: You’re at a restaurant having dinner with friends. The meal hasn’t started yet. You’re talking with one of your buddies as the waitress fills your water glass. She disappears for a minute then returns with a basket of fresh bread and sets it in front of you.

Question: Do you reach for a piece of bread?

In this situation, most guys will revert into their “default eating mode”. Their brain will switch to autopilot and they’ll do whatever they’re used to doing. (For most of us, that means we’ll reach for the bread, even if we don’t really want it.)

But here’s the thing: The bread doesn’t matter.  For guys who want to be healthy and build a good looking body, the question shouldn’t be “Is bread OK to eat?”.

Instead, it should be this:

“Is today a High Carb day or a Low Carb day?”

How you answer that will not only dictate if you have a nice slice of warm bread — it’ll also guide you for the rest of the food decisions you’ll make that night:

  • Sweet potato appetizer…or skip and go straight to the entree? 
  • Steak with potatoes…or the salad with a double order of grilled chicken?
  • Lots of carbs…or no carbs?

This is called “carb cycling” and it’s our nutritional secret weapon that will help turn your body in a muscle-building, fat-burning machine. Here’s how to do it.

HOW CARB CYCLING WORKS

While it has a fancy name, carb cycling is nothing more than eating more carbohydrates on some days (High Carb days) to help promote muscle growth and eating less carbohydrates on other days (Low Carb days) to help minimize fat gain and even promote fat loss.

We focus on carbohydrates (and not protein or fats) because carbs seem to have the most influential effect on body composition and how you look.

High Carb Days:

  • stimulate an insulin response that shuttle nutrients in your muscle cells, causing them to grow
  • replenish glycogen stores that fuel your muscles
  • make you feel good and energized

Low Carb Days:

  • promote fat loss by tricking your body into burning fat for fuel (instead of the sugar from the carbs it would normally get)
  • keep your body more receptive to insulin, improving your body’s muscle-building response

Follow This: easy Carb Cycling Plan

The rules for carb cycling are very simple.

Rule 1. On the days you lift weights, eat starchy carbs along with protein, vegetables, and healthy fats.

Rule 2. On the days you’re either off from the gym or are doing some kind of intervals or cardio, don’t eat any starchy carbs, but continue to eat protein, vegetables, and healthy fats.

That’s it. There’s no need to measure how many grams of carbs you’re eating or count calories.

If you can add and subtract, you can do carb cycling.

High Carb Meal With Grains:

High Carb Meal

Low Carb Meal Without Grains:

Low Carb Meal

So what would a typical week for a guy who wants to stay lean, improve his health, and gain a little muscle look like? Assuming he’s doing three weight workouts per week, here’s how we’d set it up:

Sample High Carb Day

Main carb sources highlighted.

Breakfast:

3 whole eggs (scrambled, poached, or fried)
Oatmeal (1/2 cup of oats, cooked in microwave)
Couple handfuls of frozen berries for the oatmeal

Snack:

2 scoops protein powder in water
banana
Couple handfuls of raw mixed nuts

Lunch at Restaurant:

Burrito wrapped in whole wheat tortilla with lots of meat and vegetables

or

Sandwich on whole grain bread with lots of meat and lettuce, tomato, etc.

Optional 2nd Snack:

2 scoops protein powder in water
banana
Couple handfuls of raw mixed nuts

Dinner at Home:

Healthy Pesto Chicken Pizza

Sample Low Carb Day

Breakfast:

3-4 whole eggs (scrambled, poached, or fried)
Breakfast salad with broccoli slaw, arugula, and low-calorie dressing

Snack:

2 scoops protein powder in water
Couple handfuls of baby carrots
Couple handfuls of raw mixed nuts

Lunch at Restaurant:

Salad with lots of meat and vegetables

Optional 2nd Snack:

2 scoops protein powder in water
Couple handfuls of baby carrots
Couple handfuls of raw mixed nuts

Dinner at Home:

Sirloin Burger with Coconut Cauliflower Mash

Tips and Tricks – Carb Cycling FAQ

What if I get hungry on Low Carb days?

Occasionally, you may feel hungry on your Low Carb days. This is because you’re avoiding starchy carbohydrates which fill you up fast and contain a lot of calories.

Ride through the hunger by adding more protein and vegetables to your meal. There’s no harm in eating an extra bun-less burger or more salad.

+++++

How many carbs should I eat at every meal?

Don’t worry about counting grams of carbs. The beauty of our carb cycling plan is in its simplicity. Just remember the rules:

On High Carb days, eat starchy carbs and fruit along with your protein, veggies, and healthy fats.

On Low Carb days, don’t eat starchy carbs or fruit, but continue to eat protein, veggies, and healthy fats.

+++++

Can I do a High Carb day on days I don’t lift weights?

You can, but we don’t usually recommend it. The reason we relegate High Carb days to the days you lift is because your muscles will be ready to soak up all those nutrients after a tough workout.

+++++

Can I eat “junk food” on my High Carb days?

We’re not your mom. And we’d be lying if we said we never had dessert. But the more you stick to the “Eat This” Carb List, the better off you and your body will be.

Junk food normally has a high amount of carbs and a high amount of fat. If you get in the habit of eating crap food on your High Carb days, your body will be more prone to pack on body fat thanks to the combination of high blood sugar, high blood insulin, and high blood fat.

Which, you know, kind of defeats the purpose of carb cycling.

Nothing To Lose But Your Belly

Forget complicated math, counting calories, and measuring food. Instead, use our simple carb cycling rules to turn your body into a fat burning, muscle-building machine.

Lifting weights today? Eat your carbs.

Doing cardio or taking the day off? Pass on the bread and feel good about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bacilio.ruiz Bacilio Ruiz

    Awesome post bro. Great how you make our lives so simple. Your like a genie!

  • Mark

    Is there a specific way you would tailor this program for those looking to gain muscle? Would you increase portion sizes, or perhaps add a third shake on lifting days (or all days)?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      There’s a fine line between gaining as much muscle as possible while keeping fat gain to a minimum. Calorie/carb cycling is an ideal strategy to use to do this. The most important thing to do is to make sure that you’re eating several meals/super shakes a day. In the S2B coaching program we have our guys eat 3 muscle meals and 3 super shakes each day. These meals and shakes consist of approximately 50 grams of lean protein, about 3 “handfuls” of vegetables and about 1 “handful” of carbs (from the “eat this” list only on lifting days). We also incorporate a work out drink on lifting days as well.

  • Nick Hamblen

    Great post as usual! Can you get away with low card all the time or is there actually a better fat burning effect from cycling?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      If your goal is to build muscle, which you probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t, then you don’t want to do low carb all the time. Your muscles (and your brain) need the carbs in order to replenish the glycogen it loses during workouts. So in order to gain muscle while keeping body fat gain to a minimum you should carb cycle.

  • Josh

    I have a very active job(75-90% manual labor depending on the week) and carb cycling has been something tough for me to nail down. Any suggestions on cycling b/t moderate and high carb. Timing, specific sources, rough idea of amounts, etc. Any ideas or help would be awesome. Thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      Based on your situation and depending on how fast your metabolism is you may not need to or even want to carb cycle since you’re burning a lot of calories with your job anyways. However, if you still feel that you want to carb cycle then it doesn’t have to be anything complex or difficult to follow or nail down. Most of the recommendations in the article would still apply to you as well. I’d start by following the simple formula above to create a baseline for yourself and then adjust as needed.

      For instance, if you find that you’re more tired than usual on your low carb days or are feeling a little dizzy or light headed while doing your manual labor, then add some carbs into your breakfast with some oatmeal (start with 1/2 cup and adjust up if you feel you need more) or a serving of fruit. If you find that this keeps your energy up all day long, great. If not, then consider adding a carb source to your lunch. This could be some whole grain bread or another piece of fruit.

      The key is to start with a baseline and this article outlines a good starting point and then adjust from there as needed based on your individual circumstances and needs.

  • http://twitter.com/darkcanuck999 Mike Drew

    How can I carb cycle if I work out at 5 o’oclock most days (before supper). Obviously I can have carbs after the workout, but what about the time leading up to the workout, should I be low carb? Also what about the next day after the workout say for breakfast and lunch, should I eat carbs then or am I too far out of the workout window at that point? Thanks for the great info Nate!

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      There are several carb cycling strategies that will work. At S2B we like to keep things as simple and easy as possible because most guys are too busy to worry about the minute details and that’s why the carb cycling plan we outlined above is so great. It’s simple and easy because it’s based on workout/non-workout days and not necessarily on individual meals each day or on when you workout or the optimal workout window.

      The easiest way to get started with carb cycling is to follow the plan outlined above and then adjust from there. So if you plan on doing resistance training on a particular day, then feel free to eat carbs throughout that day. If it’s a rest/cardio/interval day, then no carbs (or very limited carbs) for you that day.

      Once you’ve mastered this carb cycling strategy and you’re ready for some more fine-tuning with your nutrition then the next step would be to adjust your carb intake for each individual meal depending on your body transformation goals. At this point it also might be wise to bring on a coach to help you make these adjustments.

  • http://twitter.com/joegarma Joe Garma

    Remain unconvinced about carb cycling or any other sure-fired way of eating that works for everybody, but kudos to you for an easy to read and understand post.

  • Vic

    Is it ok to eat fatty meats on your high carb days or should I stick with lean meats? I hear so many people say that fatty meats aren’t healthy and I hear others say that they are fine. What do you recommend?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      I’d try to stay away from fatty meats every day of the week and instead get your fats from more healthy sources like coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, etc.

  • Cesar

    I workout 3 times a week doing HIIT first and then I lift and the forth day I usually jog or go mountain biking, so for the day that I do cardio and lifting I guess I could do the High Carbs Day, is that correct? Thanks Nate!!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      Yeah, the day you do lifting (even if you’re doing cardio too) is the day to go higher carbs. By the way, I’d probably also have you do your HIIT training after your lifting.

      • Cesar

        Thanks for that quick response, my problem is that I workout after work so if I do the HIIT after lifting I can’t sleep… zzzzz ughhh. Will you consider milk a high carb because I always drink my protein with it.
        Thank you.

        WORK IN PROGRESS

        CARLOS OSORIO
        LAKE WORTH, FL
        561-843-4501

      • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

        Oh, okay that makes sense why you do HIIT first then.

        When you say, “milk” I’m assuming you mean cow’s milk. If that’s the case then…I don’t consider cow’s milk fit for human consumption so to me it’s not a source of any macronutrient.

        Here are a few other alternatives that I would suggest. Depending on the time of day that you drink your protein will depend on which alternative you use.

        If it’s right after working out then mix your protein with some all-natural, whole orange juice (this is the poor man’s version of a workout/recovery drink), then any other time of the day, I would mix your protein powder with water or almond/rice/coconut milk.

        However, if you still plan on drinking the “dairy delight” with your protein then, yeah, I would consider it a high carb, but also a high fat source.

  • ph boy

    hi guys thanks for the info. I am currently
    starting with the ground zero program to get started .my
    question is that I am a 17-year old male around 6 foot 3 at 174 pounds
    .

    I bought and am currently using these
    items for maximal results :

    Liquid fish oil:Carlson’s Very Finest
    Fish Oil

    Multivitamin :The Vitamin Code by Garden
    of Life

    Protein powder:Muscle Milk by
    Cytosport

    Creatine monohydrate: CreaPURE
    creatine by Prolab

    Post-workout drink :2:1:1 Recovery by
    Optimum
    Nutrition

    now the thing is I did some research that
    said teenagers shold not take any supplemts mainly because of kidney stones,high
    blood acidty,stomach cramps, and prevention of natural creatine production
    .courtesy of livestong.com

    now before I throw the stuff down the
    toilet wait do you guys think?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      Wow, now you have me thinking about the first time I took creatine. I was 18 years old and it was my freshman year of college just before wrestling season started.

      Your list of supplements looks good and is exactly what we recommend. Even the brands are all quality brands too. As long as you’re healthy and don’t have any prior issues with your kidneys then the way I look at it is that you should have no problem taking these supplements as long as you also have a good, solid diet in place. My mantra has always been, “food first, supplements second!”

      The only concern might be the creatine, so if you’d feel “safer” and if you’re hesitant at all about it, then just hold off on that one for the time being and come back to it in a year or two.

  • chuck

    Nice post. Just a couple quick questions. 1) If eating too many carbs on a “high carb” day, would one risk having some of the extra glycogen created spill over into the “low carb” day, therefore raising the carb utilization on that low carb day and reducing the fat burning potential? I guess there’s kind of a carb tipping point that one needs to experiment with and figure out.
    2) What about someone doing longer cardio, upwards of 60 minutes a day at a pretty high intensity, in addition to lifting (such as a triathlete)–should they just stick to a solid nutrition plan and accept they probably can’t build huge amounts of muscle training like that?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      1) Unless you’re gorging yourself with carbs on the high carb day, which you shouldn’t be, then you won’t experience any kind of a “spillover” effect. The amount of carbs you have to eat before there’s any noticeable spillover is huge.

      Here’s a couple studies for you to look at if you’re really curious about this topic:

      http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/48/2/240

      http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/74/6/737

      2) With everything in life you have to weigh your priorities and make sacrifices based on your priorities. Is your priority to increase muscle mass or is it to be a great triathlete? The training and energy systems involved with each of these is on either ends of the spectrum so, yes it would be difficult to put on a sizable amount of muscle mass while doing upwards of 60 minutes of high intensity cardio.

      Now that’s not to say that you can’t put on any muscle mass, especially if you make sure that the nutrition, supplementation and rest/recovery side of things are well-designed and, more importantly, well-followed. Also your biological age and your resistance “training age” will have an impact on whether or not you will be able to pack on muscle while training as a triathlete. For instance, if you’re younger and have a lot of testosterone running through your veins, you can get away with a lot of cardio and still put on muscle. Additionally, if you’ve never really lifted weights in your life and now you are then your body may increase in muscle mass regardless of the cardio.

      Basically, there’s a lot of variables that play into this, but in general you shouldn’t expect to be able to do both at once and still be successful with either.

      • chuck

        Calvin,

        Thanks for such a thorough answer and linking the studies–I really appreciate it!

  • disqus_BoGt3pYDWA

    Another great article team S2B

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.price.33 Randy Price

    Thanks for the easy to appy info. My question is this… I work 3rd shift so I workout right after work, eat, and hit the sac right away. Should my carb cycle be ingested before my workout throughout the day or after I wake up? Thanks guys.

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      We want to keep it as simple as possible, so the day of your lifting is when you should eat higher carbs, even if you workout in the evening (8-10 hours of sleeping/fasting will basically “reset” your carb cycle). Just make sure to ingest a blend of protein and carbs after you workout.

  • Patty

    Hi. I have a BB friend who says that he prefers his carbs on rest day as well because he doesn`t believe in depriving his muscles of the nutrients for repair. How do you feel about this line of thinking?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      Carb cycling is not a panacea, but it does have a lot of benefits especially for guys looking to increase muscle mass while still staying relatively lean. Carb cycling is not only great for helping guys stay lean, but it also can provide anabolic benefits in a similar way to what IF can do.

      If you’re friend is a “real” BB then he’s probably following a very specific and detailed nutrition and supplementation protocol that is much more advanced than our simple carb cycling strategy. As long as his strategy is working for him and he’s continuing to see the results he wants, then he should keep doing what he’s doing. However, at S2B we try to keep things as simple and as easy as possible to understand and implement for the ordinary guy looking for extraordinary results.

      • Patty

        Thanks for your reply Calvin :) He doesn`t compete but has been lifting for many years, is very nicely muscled, and is quite knowledgeable on nutrition and different aspects of it as well as training. I`m trying to find the best way that my body responds to training and eating and I`ve looked into carb cycling, carb back loading, IF and the like. I was just curious if you thought that moderate/high carb for recovery made any sense :)
        And I forgot to say: great article, easy to understand :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

        Thanks, I’m glad the article was easy to understand.

        Depending on the type of training you’re doing (high intensity aerobic training or in a mass building phase with no concern about body fat), moderate/high carbs on recovery days could make sense, but if you’re looking to lean up while maintaining or even increase muscle mass then carb cycling is a great strategy to use for most people.

        The real key is to find a good nutrition and training program that you will follow and stick with it while your body adjusts to it as a baseline. Then, depending on your goals, start to make adjustments to your training and nutrition plan. Continue to follow this process until you reach the desired outcome.

      • Patty

        Thanks Calvin. My eating is clean, no refined/boxed foods, minimal fruit, no wheat or grain except white rice. Gotta up the vegees and greens though. No refined sugar. I lift 3x a week and try to walk daily. I figure I`ve got about 5 pounds of fat to lose so right now I`m working on cutting and then I`ll re-evaluate….probably a light bulk so I can get a somewhat squat bootay, if that`s possible at 48 lol.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cindy.vazquez1 Cindy Alberto Vazquez

    how would you include a gluten free card meal or no wheat or dairy meal..example a female doing crossfit?

    • http://www.facebook.com/CalBuhler Calvin Buhler

      The same principles outlined in the blog would apply…eat higher amounts of carbs (gluten free in your situation) on days you do resistance training and lower amounts of carbs on rest/cardio/metcon days.

  • Mike

    Great article, really interesting read.

    How would this apply if your are looking to maintain weight/muscle mass though? Surely if you are eating less on non-lifting days you’re likely to lose weight/muscle mass eventually? Would you counter this by eating more on lifting days so as to make for instance your overall weeks calories the same.

    So say you need to eat 3000kcal a day to maintain weight. Would you eat 3500kcal including carbs on the weight days then 2500kcal on non-weight days to maintain the balance?

    On a bit of a side note, in Nate’s BSB his low carb days still consist of a quite a few carbs. is the completely different as he is looking to gain as much muscle mass in a short period of time as possible. Thanks again, though now i have more questions then answers haha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.byron.9 Kyle Byron

    Why a low carb on the interval sprint day? Can’t those can be equally or more devastating (calories burned) as an upper body lifting day (where you Rx high carb). Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/brennan.obrien1 Brennan O’Brien

    So ultimately, it is possible to use this approach to gain lean muscle in the long run? I like the idea of gorging on vegetables on a non lift day, but should I have a calculated caloric minimum if the idea is to build muscle on this protocol?

  • http://www.facebook.com/miikka.leskinen.9 Miikka Leskinen

    I’ve been eating lots of carbs and fat every day all winter to get as many calories as possible, and I want to shed the extra body fat that came along with it before summer. What I’m thinking is to go low carb every day with the exception of taking a high carb recovery drink before and after working out, would that work? Or do I have to eat carbs through the day to gain muscle (or at least not lose what little I have)?

  • Guest

    I lift weights 5x’s a week and 4 out of the 5 days are in a row, which due to my life, I can’t change at the moment.
    My question is: Would carb cycling still work in this case? Should I perhaps keep my high carb days to the days I train legs and then keep it low carb for other muscle groups?

    My training schedule goes:

    Monday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. CARDIO & CORE

    Tuesday: REST

    Wednesday: A.M. CARDIO, BI’S & TRI’S
    P.M. SHOULDERS

    Thursday: A.M. CARDIO & CORE
    P.M. CHEST

    Friday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. BI’S & TRI’S

    Saturday: CARDIO & BACK

    Sunday: REST

  • Guest

    I lift weights 5x’s a week and 4 out of the 5 days are in a row, which due to my life, I can’t change at the moment.
    My question is: Would carb cycling still work in this case? Should I perhaps keep my high carb days to the days I train legs and then keep it low carb for other muscle groups?

    My training schedule goes:

    Monday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. CARDIO & CORE

    Tuesday: REST

    Wednesday: A.M. CARDIO, BI’S & TRI’S
    P.M. SHOULDERS

    Thursday: A.M. CARDIO & CORE
    P.M. CHEST

    Friday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. BI’S & TRI’S

    Saturday: CARDIO & BACKSunday: RESTLeave a message…

  • liberatingfitness

    I lift weights 5x’s a week and 4 out of the 5 days are in a row, which due to my life, I can’t change at the moment.
    My question is: Would carb cycling still work in this case? Should I perhaps keep my high carb days to the days I train legs and then keep it low carb for other muscle groups?

    My training schedule goes:

    Monday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. CARDIO & CORE

    Tuesday: REST

    Wednesday: A.M. CARDIO, BI’S & TRI’S
    P.M. SHOULDERS

    Thursday: A.M. CARDIO & CORE
    P.M. CHEST

    Friday: A.M. LEGS
    P.M. BI’S & TRI’S

    Saturday: CARDIO & BACK

    Sunday: REST

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.rankin.750 Tim Rankin

    For those interested in this concept Carbo Back Loading by Kiefer goes into this in much more detail. In fact, Keifer would argue that this “simple” plan likely won’t work as you’re eating carbs at the wrong time of the day. While I don’t follow CBL as strictly as Keifer suggests, it certainly requires more work than this to be truly effective.